The Three Ages Of Rush
You wouldn’t have thought it possible, not really, listening to Rush’s first album. Not that it was bad, far from it. It’s just that there was nothing, not a single clue, not even the smallest amount of evidence, to suggest that, with subsequent releases, this now-classic Canadian band would develop into anything more than an above-average heavy rock outfit.
Called simply Rush, the Toronto trio’s 1974 debut offering was energetic and enthusiastic enough, yet it lacked that vital spark of originality to set it apart from similar riff-dominated product. With workaday song titles such as ‘What You’re Doing’, ‘Need Some Love’ and ‘Working Man’, plus a vocalist who followed closely in the footsteps of Robert Plant, the future did not appear to bode at all well for the band.
Rush seemed to be doomed to flounder in that familiar minor-league of powerchord purveyors, of groups who release a few albums, have limited success, and eventually disappear in a cloud of dry ice and a last resounding ‘kerr-annng!’ (please note: the third ‘n’ is silent), never to be seen or heard again, and without many people caring very much anyway. But after that rather ordinary premier record release, Rush acquired a new drummer. And it made one HELL of a difference. Is that a look of incredulity I see on your face? I thought so.
John Rutsey, Rush’s first percussionist, was little else. Meaning he could do his job and thrash away at his tambours as well as the next man, but – it would seem – his imagination did not possess the almost limitless bounds of his successor’s. Step forward – extravagant facial hair and all – one Neil Ellwood Peart, Esq.
Meanwhile, over in the quiet corner, there was ‘Rivendell’, a paean to that slumbering haven, that magical, enchanted village from ‘Lord Of The Rings’. And somewhere in-between was the heart-pounding, fist-punching power of ‘Beneath, Between And Behind’. And much, much more besides. Rush were lifted – no, hang on, make that magically elevated – by Peart’s sword and sorcery tales. Their music evolved almost overnight into something magnificent and mythical. The effect was simply staggering.
Let’s take a bit of a breather here. Before I get too carried away, a brief historical update is in order. Rush were formed at the tail-end of the 1960s in Toronto and, as a high-school and bar act, played a seemingly endless string of one-nighters until 1973, when it was decided that the time was ripe to enter the studio and make a record.
A low-key single, a cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’, was followed by the aforementioned self-titled debut album, released in March 1974 on Rush’s own label, Moon Records. Initially a mere 1,000 copies were pressed. (And if you’ve got one of those suckers, treasure it – don’t sell it!) But soon enough radio stations were picking up on the band – in particular one prestigious FM company across the Canadian border in the US of A: WMMS, based in the heart of industrial Cleveland, Ohio.
Interest grew, and Mercury Records eventually offered Rush a recording contract. With a nationwide distribution system to help it along its way, the first record sold well enough and to promote it Rush were sent out on tour, opening for Uriah Heep and later Rory Gallagher. They worked hard, toured incessantly and never looked back.
Fly By Night was Rush’s second album, the one alluded to earlier. It was Neil Peart’s first with the band, so naturally enough it was also the first to showcase their new-found fantasy leanings. The young Peart was a romantic, a dreamer, a budding intellectual… and a massive science fiction and sword and sorcery fan. The cover to ‘Fly By Night’ depicted a huge, snow-coloured owl soaring directly at you, yellow eyes blazing, swooping down from the dark sky. And the music inside was similarly high-flying… and talons-bearing.
The inner sleeve to the original vinyl version of Fly By Night was plastered with reproductions of Peart’s lyric sheets, embroidered as they were with tiny sketches, scrolls and well-nigh-indecipherable words that bore more than a little relation to JRR Tolkien’s own inscrutable, self-invented alphabet. And the other two Rush members – guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee – ostensibly inspired by Peart’s fanciful lyricism, produced music of a rare heavy rock quality, laced with liberal amounts of mysticism. No one had ever heard stuff like this before.
Rush’s bone-splintering riffs, as on ‘Anthem’, were still there in abundance, naturally enough, but at the same time the band’s playing had a depth, a commitment, even a subtlety that had been noticeably missing from the first record. And Lee had begun to sound less like Zeppelin’s Percy and more like himself. Rush were on their way. On the wings of an, er, owl.
Of course, there have been bands and artists that have, in the past, been much intrigued by the works of Messrs Tolkien, Moorcock, Howard, Burroughs, Ellison and others. Led Zeppelin – or rather, more accurately, Robert Plant – wrote lines such as: ‘It was in the darkest depths of Mordor I met a girl so fair/But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.’ ‘The Ringwraiths ride in black’ was another one of Zep’s. If you’re of a certain (pensionable) rock’n’roll age like myself, you’ll remember the occasion when Swedish gnome Bo Hansson devoted an entire keyboard album to an, admittedly somewhat limp and banal, interpretation of ‘Lord Of The Rings’. Meanwhile, Jon Anderson of Yes did his tripped-out and indulgent ‘Olias Of Sunhillow’ solo album. Even Uriah Heep composed songs of a somewhat sorcerous nature, including ‘The Wizard’ and ‘Rainbow Demon’, delivered with a flourish by their late vocalist David Byron. Satin blouse and all. But Rush beat them all – even in the satin blouse stakes. They took their convictions so much to heart; they were so honest and unapologetic, it was scarcely credible.
Fly By Night was no momentary flash of brilliance – the follow-up album, Caress Of Steel, just made the flame burn brighter still. The cover to ‘Caress Of Steel’, again, was suitably compelling – a mysterious robed figure standing on top of a stony peak, snake coiled menacingly at his feet, cowering away from a glittering, floating prism, smoke billowing all around. With the exception of two tracks – the endearing ‘I Think I’m Going Bald’ and ‘Lakeside Park’ – ‘Caress Of Steel’ boldly went where no Rush album had gone before. It went to a bloody ‘Bastille Day’; it went to a grim, grey, depressing land ruled by a cruel ‘Necromancer’ who met and was defeated by Prince By-Tor (again); it went, ultimately, to the ‘Fountain Of Lamneth’.
A complete tour de force, ‘Fountain Of Lamneth’ took up the whole of the second side of the (here comes that lovingly revered format again) original vinyl album. One of Rush’s more obscure compositions, it resembles one lengthy, complex Shakespearean soliloquy in places, and appears to be a tale about some sort of fountain of youth. But of course the music was suitably captivating, multi-faceted, Geddy Lee’s now-mature vocals shrieking and soaring, Alex Lifeson’s guitar work resourcefully inventive, Neil Peart’s drumming groundbreaking and oh-so inspiring. Although a humble three-piece, Rush succeeded in shaming other bigger, more powerful, successful bands. (And indeed other humble three-pieces such as Cream and, um, Budgie.) It just kept getting better. Because then came 2112.
If ‘Fountain Of Lamneth’ had been an epic, then this one was full-on gourmet experience. The icing on the cake. The crème de la crème. And other culinary delights. Rush adopted the same formula as before – one side (of the original vinyl, et cetera et cetera) comprising several short tracks, the other accommodating a magnum opus, in this case the track ‘2112’ itself.
In seven succinct parts, 2112 takes place in the not-so-distant future. A time when the entire globe is under the rule of the Priests Of The Temples Of Syrinx, ‘Big Brother’-like dictators (that’s George Orwell, not Channel 4 – although the difference is negligible these days) who govern with steely fists and iron hearts. One man who tries to bring back some of the pleasures of the past is rejected, harassed and hounded, and ultimately falls victim to the Priests’ omnipotence. In state-controlled, nanny-ified, knife-crime-infested, modern-day Britain, Rush’s story probably has more resonance now than it ever did.
Whatever. Rush chronicle their tale with both heavy rock verve and gentle acoustic tenderness. ‘Grand Finale’, the final part of 2112, has Lifeson’s guitar seething power, eventually reverberating away to the sound of a voice, booming: "Attention all planets of the Solar Federation – we have assumed control.”
Oh-boy. And as if that wasn’t enough, Rush followed up 2112 with All The World’s A Stage, a riotous live double set. It became their most successful album so far, reaching No.40 in the US. Of course, even bigger album sales were to come for the Canuck combo – but I didn’t know that at the time when, on December 15, 1976, I realised a major ambition and – more by luck than judgment – saw Rush play live in Montreal.
Yes, it was totally unexpected. We arrived in the city (snowbound as it was and 25 degrees centigrade below, the sort of temperature that freezes your eyelashes together when you have cause to blink) primarily to interview Mahogany Rush and catch an Aerosmith concert at the nearby Forum. And, as you might imagine, when I heard that Rush were the support act for Steven Tyler’s gang on the night, I couldn’t get down there fast enough.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t QUITE fast enough. Montreal’s roads being under something like a foot of slush, it took the cab a fair time to wallow the short distance between hotel and venue, so when we finally took to our seats Rush were about halfway through their set. Through iced-up eyes (we’d only arrived in Montreal from London a few hours earlier) and bleary ears, I managed to catch the tail-end of ‘Anthem’ and then, quickly and smoothly, the taped introduction to ‘2112’ began.
As on All The World’s A Stage, the in-concert version was minus acoustic interludes, and all the more powerful for it. Lights flashing rhythmically, Lee and Lifeson cavorted around the stage, powering out their pulse-pounding sounds with teeth-gritting conviction. Behind a vast drumkit, the twirled end of his curly moustache clearly visible, Peart thundered along with them, in total sonic sympathy.
Although Rush had a somewhat unassuming stage presence – something that persists to this day, in fact – the music was produced with such faithful, well-oiled dexterity that you could do little but sit back and marvel. Overall, the show was slicker than Elvis’s cowlick. The volume geared way up, Lee’s high-pitched vocals cut through you like a chilling knife edge; Lifeson’s guitar was a big, beefy roar, while each thud from the bass and drums sounded like a depth-charge explosion.
By the encore, ‘Fly By Night’, I was finished. Jet lag and sheer heavy rock noise had left me almost bereft of my senses. But, boy, how I’d enjoyed myself. Writing about my exploits in Sounds, the late, lamented British music weekly newspaper, I proclaimed: ‘The sooner Rush tour Britain the better.’ The band duly obliged, and on June 1, 1977 they made their UK live debut at Sheffield City Hall. It was the start of a love affair between the band and their British fans that persists to this day.
A year later Rush returned to Britain and I caught up with them at Newcastle City Hall on the third date of their tour. It was, appropriately enough, Valentine’s day: February 14. (What was that I said about ‘love affair’?!) I took time out to ask Geddy Lee about the band’s special relationship with their British fans. "It’s funny,” the bassist/vocalist reflected, "but I’ve done a few interviews since I’ve been over here and people have been asking me why we’re suddenly breaking so big in Britain. I have to say I don’t know, that I’m as surprised as they are… But it’s a pleasant surprise, all the same. "Something that I’ve noticed, something that’s significantly different from the US and Canada, is the amount of involvement the audience has with our music over here. "We’re so used to playing in the US mid-west, where everyone wants to have a party, get down, kick ass or whatever. So it’s great to be in Britain and have your subtleties, the statements that you try to put into the songs, and the various things you spend time on, appreciated. It’s very gratifying indeed.” But behind the scenes things were changing.
Rush’s 1977 album, A Farewell To Kings was the band’s last so-called ‘sword and sorcery’ release. And one of my all-time favourites, as it goes. I actually spent a few days with the band while they were making the record, down at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, South Wales. I remember venturing into a cowshed adjacent to the studio where a vast, elaborate drum-kit had been set up. Birds twittered outside and a gentle breeze blew up, rustling in through the doors and causing some of Neil Peart’s giant wind-chime devices to tinkle back in response. Listen carefully, and you can hear it all happening on the record. Yea verily, there was magick in the air.
But that magick dissipated, eventually. (But not for all time: throughout their career Rush have continued to revisit tracks such as ‘2112’, often with a humorous twist. Live they would substitute the ‘2112’ line ‘We are the Priests Of The Temples Of Syrinx’ with ‘We are the plumbers who’ve come to fix your sink’!) The real turning point in Rush’s career came in November 1978 when they turned their fanbase on its head by releasing the technically complex – some might say inaccessible – ‘Hemispheres’, full of tricky time signatures and atmospheric electronics. Rush were moving on and, initially at least, I was left trailing in their wake. In my review of Hemispheres in Sounds, I was unsure whether it could be a mistake or a masterwork. The band were even using keyboards, goddammit.
"I read the review that Geoff wrote,” Alex Lifeson told writer John Gill in the May 5, 1979 edition of Sounds, "but I never read what the Melody Maker or NME said. They don’t like us very much anyway. But the reaction to the album in America has been very good. There’s a lot of new people who have got into the band with ‘Hemispheres’.
"We’ve been getting into dynamics a lot more,” Lifeson continued. "With this album we’re really starting to refine our sound. Now we really feel we have our own sound. It’s probably the direction we’ll go in. I think we’ve taken the concept piece as far as we can. It’ll start getting redundant otherwise.”
The scene was set. Rush bravely updated their attitude, binned their satin loon pants and opted for a lean, sleek, smart-suited approach. The risk of alienating their core audience was more than outweighed by the success of the follow-up to Hemispheres, the classy, commercial and cohesive Permanent Waves, released at the beginning of 1980. It went Top Five on both sides of the Atlantic and even spawned a hit single, ‘The Spirit Of Radio’.
Rush had never enjoyed these heady heights of success before and Neil Peart, for one, found it immensely satisfying."When we were starting,” he told Sylvie Simmons in the April 5, 1980 edition of Sounds, "no record company in Canada would touch us, and the only way we could get a record released was by putting it out ourselves on an independent label, which is pretty pathetic when you think about us being the biggest band Canada has produced.”
More than 25 years down the line, via a long series of consistently compelling albums such as Moving Pictures, Signals, Grace Under Pressure, Power Windows, Hold Your Fire, Presto, Roll The Bones, Counterparts, Test For Echo and Vapor Trails – plus all manner of live offerings, compilations and even a covers album in-between – and Peart’s words still resonate. Except that these days Rush aren’t just the biggest band Canada has produced – they’re one of the biggest bands in the world. And they’ve achieved that stature through nothing more than the quality of their music and the epic reputation of their stage shows. They’ve never courted controversy – apart from when Neil Peart was accused of being a fascist by the NME due to his familiarity with the work of right-wing novelist Ayn Rand and, oh yeah, Alex Lifeson infamous bust-up in a Florida hotel on New Year’s Eve 2003, when he was accused of assaulting a sheriff's deputy in what was described as a drunken brawl. But these were isolated incidents. Rush have always let the music do the talking.
"We like to get away from the panoply and glitter that surrounds this business,” Peart once said. "I don’t care about superstardom. I hope it never happens. We’re pretty private people.” But perhaps the relative anonymity of Rush contributes the mystique that surrounds them, even to this day.
The band’s new album, Snakes And Arrows, their first collection of all-new material since 2002, is a significant return to form. It’s brisk and technological, like all the best Rush albums, but it’s also got plenty of passion and emotion at its core. Tracks such as ‘Far Cry’, ‘Spindrift’ and ‘The Way The Wind Blows’ – plus a liberal sprinkling of instrumentals – showcase a band at absolute ease with themselves – and also at the absolute top of their game. Which is something Rush have been for the best part of 35 years. That’s an amazing achievement, whichever way you look at it.
ABOUT THE WRITER
GEOFF BARTON is a former Editor of Sounds and founding Editor of Kerrang! and current Editor At Large for Classic Rock.